Category Archives: Memories

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films

 

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Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be devastated by Jerry Lewis’ death, I’d have asked you to give me a drag off that before you throw it away. Just a month ago, it was easy to write Jerry off. The cranky attitude, the hubris, the outrageous statements (like “women aren’t funny”) whether he actually believed them or not, and as far as we were concerned, the ultimate betrayal: the Trump endorsement … Hell, I think we even resented Jerry’s longevity! And it got to the point where we swore that, if he ever told that goddamn parrot joke just one more time, we’d run out of the room screaming.[1]

But Jerry Lewis passing away on Sunday, Aug. 20, was a shock and cause of sorrow for millions of people, myself included. As beaten-to-death as the cliché is, Jerry Lewis’ demise was indeed “the end of an era.” He was one of the very last survivors of a show business tradition that stretched from Vaudeville to movies, radio, and television. I suspect that it was my fellow Baby Boomers that took Jerry’s shuffling off this mortal coil the hardest. After all, he was our comedian! Oh, sure, we also loved Keaton, Fields, Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Marxes, and the Stooges, but Jerry Lewis was the only one making brand new comedies for us to look forward to. And the fact that our parents vehemently hated Jerry only endeared him to us all the more. (Hey, our parents also hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles!)

And love him or hate him, as even his severest critics had to admit, Jerry was an accomplished and innovative filmmaker with an unmistakable visual style. He was also a master of film technology. It was Jerry Lewis who invented and held the patent on what is now known as “the video assist.” This allows film directors to look at whatever they’d just shot right there on the set, rather than waiting to see “the rushes” the next morning. It is now an established asset used by most modern-day filmmakers.

Most of Jerry’s obits dutifully mentioned the usual film highlights: Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry’s first solo film after breaking up with Dean Martin), The Bellboy (the first feature film Lewis directed himself), The Patsy, and, of course, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But, as fans of World Cinema Paradise probably (or hopefully) know, I write a series of articles titled The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of.  The purpose of that series is to draw film buffs’ attention to great little-known cinematic gems that have escaped from or fallen out of public consciousness. In the spirit of that series, I’ve decided to concentrate this appreciation of his work on three of Jerry’s lesser-known pictures. (Interestingly, all three of these films are black comedies about death, something I hadn’t even considered when selecting them.)

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Poster for Living It Up

Living It Up (Paramount, 1954)

My nomination for the best of the 16 movies starring the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is Living It Up, which had the most notable pedigree of all their pictures together. It was the film version of a 1953 Broadway musical titled Hazel Flagg, with songs by composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. That musical was, in turn, based on William Wellman’s classic 1937 screwball black comedy Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The source for both previous versions was a short story by James Street titled Letter to the Editor and both scripts were written by the great Ben Hecht. Fortunately, Living It Up’s screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson had the good sense to stay as faithful to Hecht’s scripts as possible (albeit with some comedy routines specifically created for Dean and Jerry), and even retained a good percentage of Hecht’s original dialogue.

Most contemporary film scholars usually opt for Artists and Models (1955) as Martin & Lewis’ most notable picture, mainly because it was the first and best of the two of their movies written and directed by former cartoon animator Frank Tashlin. I, however, have major problems with that film, not the least of which that Tashlin endorsed the idiotic theory promoted by quack psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertheim in his anti-comic book screed The Seduction of the Innocent that comic books were the main cause of juvenile delinquency. (Wertheim’s book has long since been debunked by scholars.) And while Tashlin’s visual style and use of cartoon-like sight gags undoubtedly influenced Jerry as a director, he was also guilty of encouraging Lewis’ least attractive trait: the maudlin overuse of pathos and sentimentality. (“Chaplin shit,” as Dean once referred to it.)

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis LIVING IT UP

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis in Living It Up

Directed by veteran comedy director Norman Taurog, Living It Up begins with Dean and Jerry stuck in a decrepit shithole out in the Midwestern desert appropriately named Desert Hole. Homer Flagg (Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) dreams of leaving Desert Hole in his dust and seeing the big city, specifically New York. His opportunity presents itself when the town’s only physician Dr. Steve Harris (Dean in the Charles Winninger role) accidentally diagnoses Homer as dying of radiation poisoning. (The glow Steve saw on Homer’s x-ray was his radium watch.) Meanwhile, back in NYC, perpetually scheming newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh, looking particularly gorgeous in eye-popping Technicolor, in the Fredric March role) proposes to her Machiavellian editor Oliver Stone (Fred Clark, far better cast than Walter Connolly who played the role in the original) that they give the dying boy an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Big Apple and exploit the story for publicity purposes. When Wally shows up in Desert Hole to make the paper’s offer, both Steve (who immediately develops a crush on Wally) and Homer (who’ll do anything to see Manhattan) decide to continue the ruse that Homer is living on borrowed time.

The dark humor and Ben Hecht’s caustic dialogue gives Living It Up a bite that is missing from the other Martin & Lewis vehicles. The single best line from Hecht’s Nothing Sacred script is beautifully delivered by Fred Clark to Janet Leigh: “I am sitting here, seriously considering removing your heart and stuffing it… like an olive!”  And when Wally bursts out laughing at the karma of a couple of rubes taking the city slickers for a ride, Oliver smugly responds with a line provided by scenarists Rose and Shavelson that might be the most suggestive line ever to be heard in a Jerry Lewis picture: “You were going to marry [Homer]. He would’ve done to you what he did to this paper.” Apart from Clark’s performance, one of the reasons that the role of Oliver Stone is funnier in this film than in the original is that Rose and Shavelson made the character more ghoulish, constantly looking for ways to hasten Homer’s demise. When Homer passes out in a nightclub (he’s just surreptitiously downed a quart of vodka), Oliver, looking like he’s about to burst out in crocodile tears, says to Steve, “Doctor, I want to know the worst… We go to press in fifteen minutes!” (At one point, Living It Up becomes relevant to today’s political climate when Oliver assures Steve that his newspaper will reward him with a series of editorials denouncing “socialized medicine.”)

Fred clark, janet leigh, jerry lewis & Dean Martin LIVING IT UP

Fred Clark, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in Living It Up

Another reason Living It Up outshines most other Martin & Lewis pictures is that, at long last, Dean was given several opportunities to show off his comedy chops. Most of the screenwriters assigned to the team’s movies treated Dean like a necessary evil: let him sing a few songs and just give him straight lines to feed to Jerry. Impersonating an accomplished member of the medical profession, Dean as Steve has a running gag where, whenever he wants to sound scientific, he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and drops his voice a couple of octaves. Jerry has his own solo comic highlight when he’s scheduled to be examined by an international trio of renowned experts, Dr. Emile Egelhofer (Sig Ruman, the only holdover from the cast of Nothing Sacred [2]) from Germany, Dr. Lee (Richard Loo) from China, and Dr. Nassau (Eduard Franz) from France. Homer confounds the three doctors by taking turns impersonating each of them, spouting gibberish to approximate their native languages. (And, yes, when Jerry impersonates Lee, he does his traditional cringe-inducing Oriental stereotype complete with big buck teeth.)

Although Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard wrote two new songs for Dean, most notably “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” which became a minor hit for him, the film’s best musical moments are the three songs retained from the stage version. In the aforementioned nightclub scene, Dean gets to serenade Janet Leigh with one of Styne’s loveliest romantic ballads “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” In the same scene, Jerry gives the best demonstration of his gift for eccentric dancing ever when he joins Sheree North (the only holdover from the stage cast in her film debut) in the rollicking jitterbug number “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby.” (Biographer Shawn Levy in his book King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis described Jerry’s dancing in this scene as looking like “a chimpanzee on amphetamines.”) And, last but not least, Dean and Jerry have their shining moment on film when they do the song-and-dance number “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” as they stroll through those same streets.

 

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Spanish poster for Cracking Up with the title Jerry’s Crazy World

Cracking Up (Warner Brothers, 1983)

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits covered his filmmaking downfall in the late 60s when Paramount unceremoniously dumped him just as the studio had done to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the 1930s. He tried working at other studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Warner Brothers), but those efforts only accelerated his decline. And then in 1972, Jerry disastrously attempted to make a stark Holocaust drama called The Day the Clown Cried. Concerning a circus clown imprisoned in Dachau who forced to entertain the child prisoners and eventually lead them a la the Pied Piper into the gas ovens, the never-finished The Day the Crown Cried has since become the butt of a thousand snide putdowns from Lewis’ detractors.

But then in 1980, Jerry made a directorial comeback with Hardly Working, a box office hit that nevertheless remains sheer torture to sit through thanks to Lewis smothering the humor underneath a nauseating level of pathos. The bright side of the renewed interest in Jerry Lewis was not only his acting triumph as late night talk show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy The King of Comedy (1982), basically a comic variation on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Langford being stalked by unfunny comedian wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), but Jerry also had the opportunity to take a final bite of the filmmaking apple in 1983 when Warner Brothers gave him the green light to co-write (with Bill Richmond, his collaborator on The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy), direct, and star in Cracking Up. This time around, Lewis avoided pathos altogether and proved that he had one last comic gem up his sleeve.

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Jerry Lewis as Warren Nefron in Cracking Up

Cracking Up (filmed under the title Smorgasbord) was Lewis’ return to the episodic approach of The Bellboy and The Ladies Man with a series of unrelated self-contained comedy routines and skits. The frame on which these sketches were hung was Warren Nefron (Lewis) consulting Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman), a psychiatrist, after a series of bungled suicide attempts, the flashbacks and family genealogy stories he relates to Dr. Pletchick being the basis for the various comic episodes. Unlike Hardly Working, Cracking Up didn’t even have the chance to either succeed or fail financially because Warner Brothers, the studio which had similarly botched the release of Lewis’ 1970 World War II comedy Which Way to the Front?, gave it just a limited release in France before dumping it on basic cable TV in the US. Which was a shame because Cracking Up demonstrated that Jerry Lewis’ comic instinct and timing was just as impeccable as ever.

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Jerry Lewis’ credit title in Cracking Up

This becomes apparent in the film’s opening scene when Warren attempts to make his way to a chair in Pletchick’s office while doing pratfall after pratfall on the floor’s over-polished surface, with the credits superimposed over the footage. (In a nod to audiences’ familiarity with the veteran comic, his name is billed before the title as “Jerry—Who Else?”) All the expected tropes are there: the stylized use of Technicolor, the physical adroitness, the perfect timing, the swinging big band music playing underneath the credits.

Herb Edelman, Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Herb Edelman & Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

The film’s most hilarious skits involve Warren trying to order breakfast in a restaurant and encountering The Waitress From Hell (comedienne Zane Busby) who, in an annoyingly nasal and grating voice, recites a never-ending list of choices on the menu (e.g., when Warren asks for juice, she proceeds in a monotone to name three or four dozen different types of juice the establishment offers); Jerry playing a caricature of a redneck Southern cop who accidentally destroys both the car of the driver he’s just pulled over and his own patrol car; Warren flying overseas on the world’s cheapest, least competent airline, with perennially soused Foster Brooks (the spiritual heir of cinematic drunks Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton) as the pilot and Lewis regular Buddy Lester as a sinister, heavily-armed passenger. (When going through inspection, the officials not only ignore Lester’s dual bandoliers, but they even offer Warren his choice of weaponry.) Not all of the skits work, but enough of them do to justify checking out Lewis’ little-known farewell as a director.

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Poster for Funny Bones

Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)

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Jerry Lewis as George Fawkes in Funny Bones

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits mentioned Scorsese’s The King of Comedy as an example of latter-day filmmakers’ admiration for him, but very few of them mentioned Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Not only is Funny Bones by far the better picture, but Lewis’ role is more central and critical. Several actors might have played Jerry Langford (albeit not as well as Lewis), but nobody else could have brought as much to Funny Bones as Lewis did playing the supporting role of world-famous, much-beloved veteran comedian George Fawkes. (And, no, the role is not an autobiographical one.) In fact, Chelsom, who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Peter Flannery) Funny Bones went on record as saying that he expressly designed the role with Jerry Lewis in mind. (Scorsese has admitted that his first choice to play Langford was Johnny Carson, and that he decided to offer it to Lewis only after Carson turned him down.)

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George Carl & Freddie Davies as the Parker Brothers & Lee Evans as Jack Parker in Funny Bones

A very, very dark comedy, Funny Bones is the best movie ever made on the subject of comedy. Comedian George Fawkes is the father of two sons, one of them illegitimate, the result of an extramarital affair. The bastard son is Jack Parker (UK comedian Lee Evans making his film debut), who was raised in Blackpool, England by the Parkers, a family of music hall artists that include his mother Katie (Leslie Caron, looking as lovely as ever), his adoptive father Bruno (Freddie Davies), his uncle Thomas (George Carl), and his dog Toast. (When, during a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack is asked by a police psychiatrist what he wants, he answers “Toast,” and the cops, of course, think he’s requesting breakfast.) Jack is an instinctive comic genius with a gift for pantomime and physical comedy. Jack has funny bones.

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Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes in Funny Bones

George’s acknowledged son is Tommy Fawkes (excellently played by Oliver Platt in a rare star turn). Whereas Rupert Pupkin’s main goal was fame for fame’s sake, Tommy desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps because he wants to be funny, needs to be funny. But there’s one problem. Tommy isn’t funny. Not in the least. In fact, Tommy is so clueless when it comes to humor that he can’t even recognize the incongruity of a spoiled, pampered rich kid adopting an angry young man persona on stage. Making his big Las Vegas debut, Tommy only succeeds in alienating the audience by resorting to what he’s thinks is cutting edge material, but is actually an ancient blue joke that’s been as pummeled to death over the years as Jerry’s parrot joke. (It would seem that Tommy wants to emulate Lenny Bruce, but he can’t even achieve the level of Andrew Dice Clay.) At one point, George accurately diagnoses why Tommy isn’t funny: “God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny!” In other words, Tommy doesn’t have funny bones.

Unfortunately, the suits at Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of Disney Corp.) had no idea how to market the picture, so they made the monumental mistake of peddling it as a family-friendly comedy, which it most certainly was not. The film was briefly given a limited release in March 1995 and then promptly vanished. I’ve already written about Funny Bones extensively for World Cinema Paradise in my The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, so there’s no need to spend much more time describing it when you can read all about it here. I did say earlier in this article that all three of these films are black comedies about death. In the case of Funny Bones, however, I can’t explain when and how the Grim Reaper appears in the picture without spoiling some of the movie’s best plot twists. Suffice it to say that, if you’re a major Jerry Lewis fan, you really need to see Funny Bones.

Before we wish a fond farewell to “the King of Comedy,” it’s worth considering one of those cosmic ironies that so often occur in the world of entertainment. As previously mentioned, most of the movie critics from the 1950s through the 1970s hated Jerry Lewis’ films and never hesitated to criticize his pictures in the harshest terms possible. But most of those comedies that were critical failures became huge financial successes, and almost every single one of those critics had been long gone decades before Jerry left us this year. For the umpteenth time, Jerry Lewis had the last laugh.

 


[1] Jerry Lewis’ parrot joke: “I’m riding on the New York subway and this young guy gets on and sits in the seat across from me. The kid’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, many colors on that shirt, and his hair is all done up in spikes, many different-colored spikes. He sees me staring at him and asks, “What the matter? Didn’t you ever do anything for fun?” So I said to him, “Sorry. The reason I’m staring is because I once fucked a parrot… and I was wondering if you’re my son.” (Needless to say, Jerry cleaned up the joke whenever he told it on television.)

[2] Ruman not only played Dr. Egelhofer in Nothing Sacred, but he repeated the role a third time in Billy Wilder’s 1966 black comedy The Fortune Cookie, which also involved medical fraud. Emile Egelhofer was also the name of the psychiatrist brought in to examine cop killer Earl Williams in Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s seminal 1928 newspaper stage comedy The Front Page. Obviously, Hecht liked the name.

 

Buy Living it Up on Amazon
Buy Cracking Up on Amazon
Buy Funny Bones on Amazon

 

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Military Boomer Movie Confessions Growing Up in the U.S. Air Force Base Theater System

First things first — this is an autobiographical article about the ‘different’ way I grew up watching movies, different because I was an Air Force dependent, the son of a Chief Master Sergeant E-9. When my father retired in 1967 he was the ranking non-commissioned officer in the Air Force. I know there are many ex-service dependents out there that might like to read this, because some of them must have been introduced to movies the same way I was. The military movie ‘system’ I’ll be talking about functioned all over the world, and hasn’t been written up anywhere that I can see. People from more mainstream backgrounds might be interested too. The article is also a little bit about how we lived.

As a dependent of a non-commissioned officer (effectively an enlisted man with privileges) my upbringing was not a fancy one. I don’t think my parents got really decent housing until Dad’s rank and service record — like being a main facilitator of the Texas end of the Berlin Airlift — won him some plum assignments. For us it meant that between the ages of three and nine I lived on-Base, in fairly nice quarters. By 1955 my father was in demand to run Flight Lines for C.O.s that wanted impeccable efficiency records. But duty at any one Base often lasted only three years.



A high, dry desert.
Edwards, California was the center of flight-testing, as is shown with some degree of accuracy in the movie The Right Stuff. Note that the hotshot fliers in that movie didn’t live in particularly attractive houses. The enlisted men below them had quarters on a par with low-grade public housing blocks, two bedrooms for a wife and three kids, no yard, that sort of thing. Part of my father’s ‘deal’ with his C.O.s was that his family could live in quarters the equivalent of what would be given to a Major. What this got us was a decent house in an incredibly secure on-Base neighborhood. The speed limit was five or ten miles per hour on residential streets and the MPs (or was it APs for Air Police?) were relentless. My mother parked slightly off the tarmac once and her driving privileges were suspended for a month. She couldn’t drive my father to work, which meant that he took the car and we had to walk a mile to the shopping area, partly across the desert. I loved it. In Kindergarten I was a typical ’50s dinosaur addict and considered myself smart because my (beloved) older sister had already taught me to read. I must have been a shameless teacher’s pet.

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Edwards is where I saw my first movies, probably at age four. I was later informed that the first film shown at the brand new Edwards Base Movie Theater in 1956 was a quasi-premiere of Toward the Unknown, which had been filmed at Edwards. When I finally caught up with the movie I didn’t recognize the military testing area, as kids weren’t allowed there. But William Holden and Virginia Leith did take a stroll up a neighborhood identical to ours — modest houses, no curbs.

My dear mother took me to my first movie, which I think was Oklahoma! We saw Hollywood films anywhere from three months to a year after their civilian debuts, depending on how popular they had been. My recollection at age 5 isn’t perfect, but I remember the theater being fairly large, with a wide screen positioned on a stage so that the auditorium could also be used for other presentations, ceremonies, and meetings. The building was built from cinder blocks and glass bricks (I think) and may have been part of a new shopping area. I imagine it was an immediate hit, for the nearest town with theaters was Lancaster, almost forty miles away. Oh yes, one more detail about Base Theaters — they played a two-minute film with pictures of the flag and the Star Spangled Banner on the soundtrack. Everyone stood at attention for this, even kids.

I remember seeing Sayonara and reissues of Perri, the Flying Squirrel and my first Disney animated movie, Peter Pan. I remember just one scene from Friendly Persuasion. A little later I got to see a real episode of a Republic serial. All I can recall is a shot of one of their tin-can robot monsters walking down a hospital corridor and threatening a nurse. Scary stuff, and I’d never even heard of a robot before.

In reviews I often refer to myself as a sheltered ’50s kid, and it’s the truth. Locked away on such ironically peaceful military bases and never seeing the real world, I was completely ignorant about common conflicts. I don’t remember seeing any black airmen, but they must have been there. We were not a religious family, and I received few if any lectures about life beyond “what I wanted to be”. The books I read were about Natural History. Death, crime, real war, 4527rodan

insecurity, anxiety — they didn’t exist because nobody talked about them. Sex? The issue never came up. My parents never swore, and if their friends did, I was somehow programmed to not hear. This of course made movie content very exciting. One didn’t know what would pop up on that screen.

At the theater I was blown away by trailers for the monster grasshopper epic Beginning of the End and the plaster-monster-man movie Curse of the Faceless Man. I also remember seeing TV commercials (on our fuzzy reception from Los Angeles) for the monster movies Rodan and The Blob, but nothing else. I knew I couldn’t go see them. I must have felt guilty, for I felt sure that my TV privileges would vanish if I were to ask. Where did this guilt come from? My first ‘most terrifying thing I ever saw’ was a shot of a jeep blown off a highway by Rodan’s supersonic shock wave. Sonic booms could be heard over Edwards perhaps ten times a day — were the two things connected?

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Just before leaving Edwards in 1958, I either saw a trailer for Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, or perhaps part of the feature. I wasn’t fully following what was going on but the scene where Julie London was forced to disrobe at knifepoint was really something… I think it activated some previously unused part of my brain. Yes, now there were more reasons to go to the movies, each more guilty than the last.

My father’s rank service stature had become even more enhanced by that time, partly because many non-coms at his rank and pay grade were leaving the service to establish more rewarding careers. Aerospace and civil aviation was booming as well as the arms race. As military dependents we were really living in a communal bubble — we had billeting and food allowances and maybe another perk or two, but one couldn’t save very much on the pay. As far as my father was concerned, the service was everything. He wasn’t working for money. He was never aware of what things in the real world cost.

Clearly with the aim of holding on to experienced airmen, Hollywood made another movie at Edwards at this time, Bombers B-52. I was later surprised to discover that it 4527c

had to do with the family and career problems of the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight line. My father was the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight Line, so technically the movie was about our family, us. By any measure Bombers B-52 was a ridiculous distortion. The young boy playing “me” didn’t have much of a role, but he had an older sister, just as I did, and she was the star of the picture. To this day I remind my sister that Natalie Wood played her in a Hollywood movie.

The Sergeant/Father in Bombers B-52 is Karl Malden. He has time to worry about his wife, micro-manage his daughter’s love life and even appear on a Los Angeles quiz show. He took his family on a real vacation. And he even showed himself to be a two-fisted guy, catching a government agent breaking onto the flight line to test Base security. Most hilariously, this Sergeant father relaxed at home wearing a dressing gown. The real McCoy I knew consistently came home after shifts lasting between 18 hours and two days, collapsed in bed in his underwear, and slept for 14 hours straight. I might see him looking great in his uniform once more before he went back on duty, gone. The only hobby he had time for was keeping up his old Ford pickup, as part of Edwards’ Model A Club. That was reality. As his #1 son, my job was to keep quiet and stay out of the way.



Onward to paradise.

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My father’s next assignment, from 1958 to 1961 was the big lifestyle payoff for the family — he took charge of the Flight Line at Hickam AFB, which the flyers still called Hickam Field. We got to live on Base in Hawaii. I woke up after an 11-hour plane flight like Dorothy Gale opening the door to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz — purple flowers poking in the window, strange tiny birds chirping and a smell like perfume in the air. It was amazing — since age four all I had seen was the brown glare of the desert. We lived on officers’ row on 9th Street, in front of acres of green parade ground. A tall water tower was at the end of the block, where our elementary school was. This same water tower can be seen in several shots in Tora, Tora, Tora, as it is right on the edge of Pearl Harbor. The water tower and our ‘front yard’ can be seen briefly in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, when some fighter planes zoom down the length of the parade ground. The administration building and hospital at the other end of the grass strip had dozens of big pockmarks where machine guns or bomb shrapnel scarred the granite exterior. It had all happened fewer than twenty years before. I felt like I was living on a real battleground. My family was defending the country.

The best part of the setup was that the main Hickam Base Theater was only about a block away, just beyond the clinic. With all cars limited to a strict 5 mph speed, I was allowed to ride my bicycle anywhere on Base, and to walk to the Theater by myself at age seven to see movies. Child’s admission was 15 cents. Three pennies in a vending machine bought a bag of salty, dry popcorn. The auditorium was big and the picture was bright. It was heaven. I think the first film we saw there was South Pacific.

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I figured out the theater’s system fairly early, because I’d ride my bike there every day and stare at the posters. The movies changed four or five times a week, and by walking around the building one could see posters for the next seven ‘attractions’. There must have been a giant film circuit going at these Base theaters, for every couple of days a film print or two would be picked up and others dropped off. Posters and trailers circulated as well. There were at least two other theaters on base that we didn’t go to much. One was completely outdoors, to watch movies under the Hawaiian stars.

I was allowed to attend the movies on my own because I wanted to see things nobody in the family wanted to see. This was good, because my mother had a habit of covering my eyes if she thought something terrible was going to be shown on screen. She did this for a beheading in Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Instead of protecting me, she gave me nightmares. For years I tried to imagine what a man having his head chopped off looked like… only to find out later that the event wasn’t shown at all. I was allowed to attend matinees on my own and eventually evening shows as well, which is how I saw, by myself, The Mysterians, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, The Atomic Submarine and Battle in Outer Space. The two Japanese space movies had 4527mats
stock shots of American planes unloading secret anti-alien weapons in Japan — and the planes bore the MATS (Military Air Transport Service) insignia of our fathers’ own squadrons. We Air Force dependent kids cheered any display of U.S. military hardware, but when our planes were suddenly on screen we jumped up like maniacs. At age ten we were all warhawks, by default … and our fathers were fighting the aliens too!

Every week brought something amazing. At age seven I saw Gigantis the Fire Monster and Teenagers from Outer Space within the space of a couple of weeks; I thought Teenage was emotionally moving! I’m not sure how I got to see The Mummy, as movies with open horrific themes or ‘adult’ content were out of bounds. I was told that Village of the Damned was a no-go because the advertising mentioned something to the effect of bastard demon children from outer space. Ditto a no-go on The Tingler, The Brides of Dracula and The World The Flesh and the Devil, although the dramatic trailer for that show stuck in my mind for years.

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By 1960, many kids out in the civilian world were already hip to the world of film. But I still lived in a total information vacuum regarding movie history. I loved the lizards-only The Lost World and had no idea that it was a remake. I read the Conan Doyle book and also H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, without knowing that an exciting screen version already existed. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver made a big impression, but it would be several years before I found out about Ray Harryhausen. My only knowledge of King Kong was hearing some older kids talk about it. I gathered that a monster was involved but that was all. This was not a world I was sharing too much with my parents, for fear that they’d think I was becoming a delinquent and cut off my access. Meanwhile, I had a secret life as a ‘movie expert’. For a couple of years I kept a little file with titles and one-sentence opinions. I tried to sit through The Time Machine twice in one afternoon, and was yanked out of the theater by an usher and my mother, who had come looking for me. Big pictures for me in 1961 were Gorgo and Atlantis the Lost Continent. At the time I thought Atlantis was perfect in every way. You’re only young and impressionable once.



San Berdoo… Mormons and Hell’s Angels.
I really missed my little Base Theater when in late 1961 we moved to Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California. I’d stay in that town until leaving for college nine years later, and essentially never came home again. We had one year of beautiful desert climate in San Berdoo before the smog moved in to stay. Our yard was overrun with lizards and ‘horny toads’. My mother must have had some illusions about my independence because at age 11 I was permitted to take a bus downtown to see matinees, often alone when my friends were off on vacations. Thus I finally became aware of how real movie theaters operated, as opposed to the stern discipline at the military theater. At the shows downtown I waited in line, fought for a good seat, yelled during the show and fought again to buy candy at the intermission. Like every movie-mad kid I scanned the paper every Wednesday to decide what show would be the best bet for the Saturday noon slot. I usually chose science fiction monsters over horror pictures. Space films had unfortunately all but dried up, but there were several seasons of Japanese monsters and the much more in-your-face Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, back on a double bill with Mysterious Island. At age eleven I also went alone to 4527fm

see Hitchcock’s The Birds, and white-knuckled the whole experience. When I walked out of the theater I was transformed. The world was still the same, but I’d never again take it for granted. Chaos and catastrophe could strike at any time.

This is when I finally met friends with similar interests, on the school playground of Hunt Elementary. Instead of smoking or talking dirty, I’d listen while Arthur Gaitan and Bill Harris lectured me on the entire genealogy of classic Universal monsters: “so, Frankenstein falls in a well at the end of this movie, and is found frozen underground in the next one”. They also loaned me copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and showed me the grungy liquor stores where they could be bought. As the monster mags were always racked next to the sex-oriented magazines, one had to get in and out fast. San Berdoo was a mix of Mormon repression and sleazy license, and you never knew what blue-nosed adult might call the cops and denounce you as a delinquent. At least we heard stories to that effect. Through Famous Monsters we learned about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Hammer films and A.I.P., Paul Blaisdell and Ray Harryhausen. We saw stills for rare movies we’d spend the next forty years waiting to see.

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There were amazing matinees to be had downtown. The 1964 double bill of Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had kids yelling and cheering, while The War of the Worlds came back linked with Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, and redoubled my interest in ’50s sci fi.

Unfortunately, the really weird stuff only seemed to play at drive-ins, which were out of my reach. My parents had stopped going to movies altogether, and if by chance they did they weren’t going to take me to see Gorath or Atragon. We didn’t live on-Base at Norton but bought a small house in Del Rosa, an Eastern extension of the city being carved out of orange groves. I saw ad flyers from Norton’s Base movie theater but couldn’t attend, because the only way to get on Base was in a vehicle with the proper pass decal. I wasn’t even driving yet. Thus I’d look at little ads for things like The Time Travelers and Planet of the Vampires and just shake my head. My idea of an impossible dream, something I knew would never happen, was a home movie machine that would allow me to see Our Man Flint projected on my own wall, in ‘Scope. I actually dreamed that the ‘film’ would be in some kind of cartridge roughly the shape of a VHS cassette.

On the drive home from the Base once, I remember reading a theater flyer while, outside the car window, one could see long lines of troops boarding cargo planes destined for Vietnam, just as in the movie Hair. I assumed they were all gung-ho soldiers eager to fight, and didn’t give a thought to the fact that in a couple of years I’d be eligible for the draft as well. I was still a military kid — that was just how the world operated. I considered myself intelligent but in no way was I thinking for myself, nor was I giving much thought to the real world I’d be living in. There was my schoolwork, my friends and these marvelous movies to occupy my mind. How to Become a Lifelong Dreamer, Chapter One.

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I got my license in 1968 and was soon a regular customer at the Base Theater. As normal ticket prices downtown were at least two dollars, the 35-cent admission on the Base was great. The theater itself was little more than a converted barracks with a screen probably less than thirty feet wide. But the projection was good and the audience of young airmen was always enthusiastic. One of the first shows I saw there, in standard 35mm and mono sound, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I saw it again three years later at the Cinerama Dome, it was quite a different experience. The Base Theater screened many films not shown locally, and most everything released by a major studio. The politically challenging If…. and Medium Cool fascinated me. In my junior year some progressive schoolteachers took us students to a strange new ‘art theater’ in neighboring Riverside, to see Cassavetes’ Faces and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. The bookstores in the new mall downtown suddenly had a fat movie section. I bought Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings and a thoughtful girlfriend gave me the Truffaut: Hitchcock book. It became my bible, even though I hadn’t even seen Psycho yet.

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Meanwhile, the downtown theaters suddenly became oppressive to teenage moviegoers, presumably in reaction to the ‘permissive garbage’ Hollywood was putting out under the new ratings system. In 1969 I was turned away from The Wild Bunch because I wasn’t 18. I excitedly pointed out that I was 17, and that the manager’s own posted regulation for “R” movies said that children under 17 were the ones that needed to be accompanied by an adult. It was no go — the theater manager wouldn’t budge. I’d have to settle for going back to the Base Theater, where I could bring some friends to see the “R” rated Wild Bunch, as well as M*A*S*H and even the rare Age of Consent, with its eye-catching Helen Mirren nude scenes. Yes, the “repressive” U.S. military was the most liberal entity I encountered in my teenage years.

In my senior year I was told about a special film class being held on Base, at Norton’s gigantic, high-security Air Force film center. Some officer wanted his son to be indoctrinated in film and so pushed the weekly class through the bureaucracy. With the draft on, my parents liked the idea of my qualifying for a photo outfit, as they thought I was so un-aggressive that any other kind of military duty would be a disaster. Considering that they were such hawks, I’m grateful that my parents didn’t pressure me toward a military career.

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The film club was fun and our teacher Ray Ussery was a great guy. We shot 16mm with a new Arriflex. We were impressed by the high-tech building, a giant concrete block. Its maze-like interior was suitable for the underground bunker of a James Bond villain… or Adolph Hitler. We got to view some pretty awful films that the Air Force propaganda people were making. One montage of jets taking off on a bombing mission was synchronized to a Moody Blues song (“Dawning is the Day”) about realizing one’s dreams. A terminally lame informational film imitated the style of the TV hit Laugh-In. Then we were told that the club would be giving out a pair of scholarships that included two semesters of college tuition. The anointed officer’s son didn’t bother to fulfill the requirements but won anyway. I got the second prize because I dazzled them with my enthusiasm and turned in a full script (for a terrible film idea). I must have looked like a big chipmunk that wanted to make movies. That good experience led to my giving an uncharacteristically upbeat performance at a general school scholarship interview, and suddenly I was on my way to UCLA. Add that to the list of personal contradictions — the Military Industrial Complex helped send me to a hotbed of radical political activity… which I quietly observed from the sidelines.

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UCLA in 1970 was a fine place to be exposed to new ideas. I never was drafted. I reported to my induction center to get my card, and found that I was the only white kid in a room packed with Latins and blacks. My student deferment held out until the Big Draft Lottery. My lucky birth date came up 307 out of 365, so I was home free. I’d return to San Bernardino frequently from UCLA, until the gate pass on my Volkswagen expired. But by that time I was heavily into the Los Angeles vintage movie culture, what with Film School screenings, passes from professors, special series at the County Museum of Art, celebrity-hosted screenings at the Director’s Guild and of course FILMEX. I’m still that kid who got to walk to his own private movie theater at age seven.

June 24, 2014

 

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The Other Manson Family or Bottom Feeding In The Overseas Distribution Aquarium – An Exploitative Memoir

 

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            My significant other and I arrived in Los Angeles in 1977. We’d driven a “drive-away” Impala through a cross country blizzard from Boston.  Her mother Natasha had snared us a one bedroom in the apartment sprawl she lived in.  It was a terraced bunker uphill from the  Whiskey a Go-Go.  Dionne Warwick had been the only notable tenant there until Motley Crue in ’82.  Warwick had left eons back but long time dwellers acted as if she was still there providing glittery gravitas to the joint. It was neglected and battered but Clark Apartments was all dream exotica to former denizens of Boston’s Back Bay.  With its soaring palms, floodlit pool and a glimpse of L.A. basin sparkle this was cockeyed heaven.

Bouncing from temp spots at IBM legal to Pepperdine’s lost Watts’ campus I was longing for some Hollywood glitz appointment. Natasha offered an opening at her company, a film distributor mere blocks away from our Clark Apartments. I interviewed with Manson Distributing Corporation’s president, an anxious, awkwardly jovial gentleman named Michael Goldman. After mild chit chat, Goldman hired me. Obviously Natasha’s recommendation was key, tinsel town nepotism at work.

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Manson Distributing Corporation was situated at 9145 Sunset Boulevard in the Aladdin Building, blatantly accented by the fat brass Aladdin’s lamp hung over the entrance. It was, and still is, an undistinguished two-story square which in 1977 sat across from the Cock’n Bull tavern, birthplace of the Moscow Mule and Jack Webb’s daily waterhole.  Next door was La Maganette, our usual takeout choice, a dimly lit Italian mock swank with regulars from Sammy Davis to Richard Deacon. Further east on Sunset was Scandia, considered L.A.’s premiere eatery alongside Ma Maison.  In that era L.A. had a narrow gastronomic belly. Other neighbors included Dick Clark Productions, Dick or his wife were often out front trying to curb their massive dogs, and the old school Paul Kohner Agency, my first agent’s quarters, with John Huston carefully squeezing himself and his oxygen tank through the front door.

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Jack Webb was never perched far from the feast at the Cock’n'Bull.

 

                  The rest of Sunset was ripping itself from the clutches of the sixties as it stumbled through the seventies. Filthy McNasty’s and its flooze were in last gasp. Power Burger gave super beef shots. Turner ruled the booze front. You could eat the same bubbling quiche at both Old World and Mirabelle’s. The Rainbow served decent crunch pizza (and still does) but the Hollywood Vampires had gone bye-bye and metal heads were beginning to ooze in.  The Roxy and the Whiskey had ace acts then (before they succumbed to pay-to-play to survive.) And Tower Records was the center of the vinyl cosmos (sorry Licorice Pizza.)

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Edmund Goldman, Michael’s father, started Manson around 1953 with Sam Nathanson, the name “Manson” came from their surnames’ last syllables.  Sam had departed and Ed was settling into a more patriarchal role as Michael commandeered the company through the next phase. Ed’s fame claim was that he purchased domestic rights to Gojira from Toho for twenty-five grand and brought it to Harold Ross and Richard Kay at Jewel Enterprises.  Ross and Kay with Terry O. Morse transformed Ishiro Honda’s ground busting anti-nuke fable into the castrated American Godzilla, King Of The Monsters. There were a number of accounts as to how Ed discovered the film. One had him seeing it in a Little Tokyo movie house (did Ed really stray from the Westwood or Beverly Hills theater circuit?) Another was that it was brought to Ed’s attention by his friend Paul Schreibman, an attorney and distributor, and importantly legal consultant for Toho. But the tale I favored was from Manson’s bookkeeper Margaret who said that during the war when Ed was the Far East emissary for Columbia Pictures he was put into a Philippines detention camp by the Japanese. He struck up a friendship with one of the guards and after the war that guard became an executive at Toho. As a token to their friendship the former guard alerted Ed to the wonder which was Gojira.  I never asked Ed for verification preferring to just savor the myth.

But I did demand back story on the framed photo in Ed’s office of him being attacked by the Three Stooges on the Columbia lot. In the pic Moe has Ed in a nasty hammerlock while Shemp and Larry are doing unmentionable things to his extremities. Regarding the gouging Ed commented, “Moe Howard was friendly enough but if a camera was around he’d become dangerously violent.  Those other knuckleheads would follow his lead.”

“How often did you go to the track with Shemp?”

“We weren’t that close.” he replied.

My annual bonding with Ed came as the various foreign film markets approached. Whether it was Cannes, MIFED, or the local newbie American Film Market Ed and I would go in the company car to Smart & Final on Melrose to buy a snack spread for the hotel sales room. We’d spend a day choosing the perfect client confections.  Ed believed food was crucial to making sales.  Ed in sweater vest and dress pants resembled the Monopoly man, sans top hat, gone casual. Ed said I looked like an extra from Satan’s Sadists (one of Manson’s many Al Adamson titles.) It wasn’t off the mark when the Smart & Final cashier suggested I was Ed’s “personal hippie valet.” Ed chuckled then muttered something about Al Adamson and Sam Sherman liking Red Vines.

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I was stationed at Manson with the boys in the shipping department. The “boys” were actually two gents in their late forties and one drag queen. Devon, a determined thespian in a magnificent but obvious toupee ran the scene with expert devotion, spiked wit and high drama. Devon’s long time friend Hal assisted.

Hal was a notary and professional eccentric who had developed his own axis and orbit. At first flush Hal was the spitting image of Ernie Kovacs homophobic conception Percy Dovetonsils, including bottle spectacles and moustache, although Hal’s tongue wasn’t Percy’s. Hal expounded on Marxist principles and the anti-carcinogen benefits of cinnamon in coffee and ground up apricot pits in everything while tirelessly playing a cassette of Edith Piaf’s best. He would display his weekend acquisitions from Bargain Circus and every yard sale in a 20-mile radius of Griffith Observatory, while indulging you for your take on their value, “Guess how much, how much?” He spoke endearingly of various “mudderfuggers” who had wronged him in his global trots, tales which included his excommunication from Israel, his deep romance with India (where a soothsayer said he’d die one day, the teller was off Hal took his dirt nap in Ireland) and the glorious Roma days with Devon dating Vatican cardinals and bishops while waiting for movie roles. Hal and Devon were in Catch 22’s whorehouse scene with Charles Grodin but that “mudderfugger Nichols cut us out!” Hal didn’t hit the editing floor in Cast A Giant Shadow where he can be seen briefly as Kirk Douglas’s secretary.

The drag queen, who Hal called Queenie, was the messenger.  He jockeyed Goldberg cans from Manson’s storage (a garage with a flea size studio apartment over it behind The Palm on Santa Monica) to Nossecks’, Aidikoff’s, and Sunset screening rooms around West L.A. and Beverly Hills.  But he spent too much time on the phone arguing with fabric stores over his next costume construct. Queenie’s days were numbered as his outside curriculum was encroaching on his workaday performance.

Shipping’s main responsibility was contract fulfillment of a title’s publicity and film elements or sending out sales materials to potential buyers.  70’s overseas sale promotion required mailing salt lick sized ¾” NTSC video cassettes (a 60 and 30 minute part for each title) along with brochure sheets like these:

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Manson’s library was primarily exploitation and a hefty part of that was adult fare or as Devon discreetly tagged it “fuck films.”  Not surprisingly there was concern when sending out screening cassettes about territory censor guidelines.  This meant that features needed to be clearly marked as “hard” or “soft.”  I was appointed to determine which library screeners had “erect” as opposed to “flaccid” organs on display.  Proper labeling would decide (sometimes) whether a title made it through customs or whether it ended up in the custom house’s private library. (Greece’s postal board held “art film” fests on the second Thursday of every month.)

Japan allowed adult importation as long as a metamorphosis occurred.  Japanese distributors would purchase a feature positive 35mm print and then carefully go through it frame by frame removing all  pubic hair and genitalia, intricately “painting” it out.  From the new “clean” composite they’d make a “dirty” (low grade) negative to create release prints.

In pre-video days most territories had no public outlet for things pornographic. The Mideast was an impossible sell for anything vaguely sexual. A breakthrough came when the new Manson salesman Pete (who had moved into sales from shipping hence opening my position) sold Sinderella and the Golden Bra, a very soft skin offering, to a Lebanese distributor. After governmental slice and dice the film could have been sold as live action Disney.

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The Manson library was morphing when I came aboard.  There’d been a past deal with Janus so classics like Chimes At Midnight had been sold alongside Orgy of the Golden Nudes but overall little strayed from b to z-standard sex and violence. Now Mark and Marilyn Tensor’s Crown International was providing Manson with a new wave of youth attractions.  Crown had gone from producing Weekend with the Baby Sitter and Blood Mania to mild teen romps like The Van and Van Nuys Blvd. The Crown feature The Pom Pom Girls was second to Disney’s The Rescuers in France’s 1977 box office, a defining prize for Manson and Crown.  Another source would come from producer Charles Band with nil-budget, humdrum sci fi like The Day Time Ended, Laserblast and End Of the World. That last title brought Christopher “Playgirl After Dark” Lee and Sue “Lolita” Lyon together for the first time. Not venturing completely from stroke flicks, Band also provided an adult musical Fairy Tales (in the tradition of Bill Osco’s Alice In Wonderland and Band’s own Cinderella.Fairy Tales was notable for finally pairing Martha Reeves with Professor Irwin Corey.

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But the bulk of titles remained in the grand bottom feed tradition. Many of the purveyors were loyal pals of Ed Goldman and no one truer than Bulgaria’s gift to the world Stephen Apostolof aka A.C. Stephens.  Steve’s amazing history has been detailed capably elsewhere (particularly the interview gangbang in Psychotronic No.8, Winter 1990.) He was a habitual visitor to Manson often bringing a box of “stinkweed” cigars for Ed which Ed would dispose of as soon as Steve was out of sight.  Manson distributed such A.C. works as Class Reunion, Snow Bunnies, Fugitive Girls and Lady Godiva Rides, with its trailer narration “Filmed on two continents… in Hollywood.”  Steve was presently trying to get Edmund to pick up his latest title Hot Ice. (Hot Ice was a caper film with intended and unintended comic overtones, that unique A.C. Stephens blend. As I recall it had almost no nudity which didn’t help the sale.)  As part of the new Manson prescience there was a reluctance to acquire Hot Ice. Steve was having difficulty with this and confessed openly about it to Devon and myself. He was certain this was his greatest film and possibly the last one his buddy Eddie Wood was capable of working on. “I’m worried about the son of a bitch. He just drinks and watches TV. If Manson distributes Hot Ice it’ll help Eddie.”

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This was before major hoopla over the Ed Wood oeuvre. Like many in the tri-state area my brother and I were big fans having watched Plan 9 and Bride every time they were on Zacherly’s Chiller Theater. I asked Steve to bring Ed with him next time and we could have lunch at Cock ‘n Bull and discuss the tender side of the “The Super Swedish Angel” Tor Johnson. Steve said Wood never leaves his chair unless he falls off it.  I pleaded some more and Steve said, “If Manson distributes my Hot Ice I’ll bring Eddie to lunch.”  After Steve left Hal and Devon described Eddie Wood as “a transvestite drunk” who they didn’t want near the office. They continued with how decrepit Criswell and Vampira had become haunting the aisles of Hollywood Ranch Market at midnight. I’d seen Vampira there once and she looked heavy but fine for late fifties. Devon added “Do you really want to eat lunch with a stinking old rummy in drag?” From then on whenever Hal and Devon saw a distressed female on the street they’d suggest I take her to lunch since it might be Ed Wood (akin to “don’t step on that spider it might be Lon Chaney.”)

The ribbing continued up to the day in ’78 when a despondent Apostolof came into the office and told us Eddie was dead. Steve mused, “If Manson had picked up Hot Ice maybe Eddie would still be alive and we could have lunch. That’s something to think about.”

Manson was a compact crew in 1977, with around ten employees.  Sales and acquisitions were handled by Ed, Michael and Pete. Natasha was Michael’s assistant.  Michael as a CPA oversaw finance and was a supreme organizer.  He oversaw a paper system with multiple title, agreement and client files with every telex and soon FAX copied in triplicate regarding every contractual burp. I would never see this level of order again at another film company, anal fascism at its best.

Margaret the Manson bookkeeper was in another realm, a chain smoker who looked like Ben Franklin in a muumuu anchored to a cyclone torn office. Her desktop was a document layer cake topped by charred invoices from smoldering Pall Malls. Margaret always wore sandals; shoes couldn’t contain her toes with their elongated, twisting, never manicured nails. Margaret’s life goal was to purchase federal land in Nevada and build an underground home for herself and her son. She’d show me house blueprints and cackle about the brilliance of her plan. It would never be but she did have a novel approach to financing. South Korean distributors often paid in cash due to their government restrictions for moving money overseas via transfers or checks. So Margaret sometimes would deposit hefty greenback payments in the Sunset City National on the Beverly Hills line. Once while walking cold thousands to the bank Margaret was robbed. Or so she said. Margaret had pulled a pathetic con. Instead of her underground home she ended up in a state run facility. Poor Margaret.  As I remember she made a first-rate lasagna.

Margaret used to complain about many things including tracking “short film” distribution. “What a waste of time these aren’t even real films.” Manson did distribute short films, one was The Legend Of Jimmy Blue Eyes which was nominated for an Oscar in ’64, directed by Robert Clouse who would later helm Enter The Dragon.  The other was Minestrone written and directed by Danny DeVito. DeVito during this time was mainly known for playing Martini in the play and movie of Cuckoo’s Nest as he hadn’t yet nailed the part of Louie on Taxi.  So like Apostolof DeVito had nothing better to do but hang around the shipping department chatting up Devon.

One fine day DeVito was to drop by to pick up some Minestrone flyers.  Devon left them out for Danny and headed to an audition. Hal was making his daily lunch concoction which consisted of Laughing Cow cheese cubes, wheat germ, Lipton’s onion soup mix, apricot pit powder and boiling water shaken up in a thermos. Queenie was out running errands. The shipping department was a unified jumble of desks and chairs, no partitions, telex machine, file cabinets and plenty of wall cases slotted for pub materials. Each of us had a chair but there was no space for guest seating. While passing Queenie’s chair I noticed its cloth seat was damp, badly stained.  I asked Hal if he’d dropped some of his thermos slop on Queenie’s chair.

“No, I did not.  Lemme take a look at it.” Hal examined the chair, feeling and sniffing it. “There’s K-Y all over it.  Wait‘ll Devon sees this he’ll have another heart attack.”

The bohemian occupant of the residence over the Manson storage garage had told Devon recently that Queenie was bringing visitors there.  It wasn’t to peruse stills from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies of which there was an unusual glut of 8x10s in the garage.  The connect between Queenie’s chair and the garage would likely occur to Devon.

“Don’t touch that chair.  I’ll be right back.”  Touching it was far from my mind. Hal ran off to pick up Dirty Western dialogue continuity copies nearby at “Henry Jaglom’s copy joint”, “Jaglom’s” because he tended to stake out there.

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Edmund G. buzzed me to take a print of Cries Of Ecstasy, Blows Of Death across the street to Nosseck’s.  “Right this minute?” “Yes, right this minute.” I grabbed the print and left, leaving the shipping department unmanned. Nosseck’s Screening Room was in the rear basement of a building which would soon house David Geffen and Lookout Management. Run by Don and Marilyn Nosseck it was a historic little theater. Don was there between screenings so we struck up the usual conversation about the months Howard Hughes holed up in ’58 watching Republic horse operas while chasing Hershey bars with Alta-Dena quarts. As I examined the carpet for ancient cow juice stains I envisioned Queenie’s chair and DeVito sitting in it.  I hightailed it across Sunset.

DeVito was indeed in Queenie’s chair talking non-stop to Devon.  Hal walked in with the Dirty Western continuities. As he was about to inform DeVito about the state of things I intervened, “No, Hal, some things are best left… you know.”  DeVito departed with his flyers and Hal updated Devon on Queenie’s chair. Devon didn’t have a heart attack but he had one of his more striking outbursts, transparency sheets and an ashtray took wing, Devon’s skull rug did an Edgar Kennedy 360.  Queenie vamoosed to Las Vegas where someone believed he died in the 1980 MGM Hotel fire.

In ’79 Hal found some old lysergic acid in his freezer and dropped it before a dinner party.  At the soiree Hal had chest pains and ended up hospitalized.  It was a minor attack but he was put on lengthy bed rest.  This by the way doesn’t suggest a correlation between LSD ingestion and heart function (refer to Sidney Gottlieb’s CIA studies for further analysis.)

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With Hal temporarily gone Devon brought in a close pal (and perhaps past romance) to sub for him. I came into work to find a familiar face dressed in Johnny Cash black seated at Hal’s desk.  The distinctive Oklahoma accent, which graced Rod McKuen LPs, called out, “Hey, Todd, didja hear Sid Vicious is finally dead.” It was Jesse Pearson, Bye Bye Birdie’s Conrad Birdie announcing that Sid Vicious had OD’d in NYC.  Jesse was now directing porn having given up acting after a mountain top revelation while shooting Bonanza in’69. He’d tired of playing   cowboys and “Birdie types” like Johnny Poke on Beverly Hillbillies and Keevy Hazelton on Andy Griffith. Jesse was a sweet guy and very funny. A recent Manson acquisition was Olly Olly Oxen Free starring Katharine Hepburn (it paired well with Atom Age Vampire.)  Jesse did an imitation of Kate singing Sid Vicious’s version of My Way.  Jesse got smacked with cancer later that year and headed to Louisiana for his final days. My significant other and I went to his going away gala at erotic producer Tod Johnson’s Hollywood Hills castle. She spent the party crying in the bathroom as she’d had a pre-teen crush on his Birdie character.  Jesse regaled the rest of us with gallows humor about crossing Cedar Sinai’s striking nurse picket line to get to his dentist. “Let me through. Gotta get my cavities filled before I’m dead.” The last film Jesse directed, The Legend Of Lady Blue won best picture at the 1979 AFAA Erotic Film Awards and Jesse under the name A. Fabritzi won a posthumous best screenplay trophy.

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While Manson started picking up fringe mainstreamers like Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode, Philip Borsos’ The Grey Fox, Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline Of Western Civilization, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the Oscar winning documentary Genocide there was still room for top grade exploitation. Answering my prayers Jimmy “Salacious Rockabilly Cat” Maslon brought Herschel Gordon Lewis’s ‘60s classics Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! to the Manson family.   As well Mr. Lewis was being coaxed to revisit Blood Feast with a follow-up (it was finally completed in 2002.)  Canadian productions under the Great White North tax shelter began showing up like Roger Vadim’s The Hot Touch and David Cronenberg’s Scanners.  There was morbid interest in how the Dorothy Stratton tragedy would impact sales of Crown International’s Galaxina (not much bang there.)

Reoccurring visitors made appearances in the shipping department.  Johnny Legend bopped through trawling for trailers for his comps.  Holly “Tuxedo Warrior” Palance and Tanya “Tourist Trap” Roberts dropped in for hot clips for their promo reels and cocktails at “La Maggot.” Richard “Soft White Underbelly” Meltzer came by and did a tap dance because his tune “Burnin’ For You” was climbing the charts. Jim Wynorski was our “one-day trailer maven” before he made his directorial debut with The Lost Empire beginning his eighty and still counting features.  Jim would bring his cohort Linda “Humanoids From the Deep” Shayne who hijacked my IBM Selectric.  Al Adamson and Regina Carroll would peek in on occasion.  And Steve Apostolof usually showed up around film market time still shopping Hot Ice.

Sometimes surprise guests hung around longer than they wished. Manson had a small screening room on the second floor with a booth for 16mm projection and ¾” NTSC playback.  The projection room door had a troublesome lock. Once while passing the room I heard banging and a voice yelling in French and English. I went in to discover Roger Vadim trapped in the projection booth.  I freed the understandably distraught director.  I asked him if he thought Bardot would have been a more superior Barbarella than Fonda and he punched me in the face.  No, actually he was so upset by his entrapment he barely said “Merci” and took off for the safety of Sunset Blvd.

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I made numerous excursions up to Charlton Heston’s home on Coldwater during the promotion of Mother Lode. He was usually wearing a corset for a back injury. “Damn tennis.” Heston would go through the color transparencies I’d chosen approving the slides we needed to support the film. He seemed often to be in pain so I didn’t engage him in heavy conversation.  But one time after throwing out complimentary jazz about Touch Of Evil and Will Penny I got around to his most recent stage turn as Sherlock Holmes and the role of Holmes in general. I asked him if Robert DeNiro would be better as a Watson or a Holmes. ”DeNiro can pretty much play whatever he wants to play and I’m sure he’d play it well.”  What about Clint Eastwood? “That would be an interesting portrayal.” What about Mickey Rooney?  Heston handed me the pile of slides. He made a guttural noise, adjusted his corset and strode into the next room. I never got to ask him about his co-star in the play Crucifer Of Blood, Jeremy Brett who played Heston’s Watson. At that time Granada was just beginning to court Brett for their Holmes series.

The next time I visited Heston he and his house staff greeted me outside by the tennis court and they kept my visit quick without dialogue or gracious house entry. It may have been my earlier mention of Mickey Rooney or the furtive gestures of the crazed individual, actor Johnnie P. from San Jose Confidential, who was sitting in my company Toyota in the drive.

 

Devon was getting more stage work and spending less time in the office.  Other than the time Mae West kissed him at the Crown International premiere of Sextette  the happiest I’d seen him was when he found the discarded brand new 40” TV in the building dumpster. Someone had deposited the TV and remote and Devon was the first to spy them. Devon carried them into the office proclaiming “They’re mine!”   Both items were in cartons shrink wrapped with colored cellophane.  Feverishly elated he set them aside by his desk and planned to take them home at day’s end.

In the hallway outside shipping the owner of the Aladdin building, a Beirut millionaire, accosted me and Adam, the non-drag queen new shipping guy, and asked us what happened to the TV set out by the trash.  We told him that Devon had snatched it up. He began to laugh maniacally.  “I put it out there to see who would take it. It’s a complete goddamn fake.”  A peculiar prank indeed, like bad Allen Funt on lithium.

When Adam told Devon I knew there’d be a compressed acting lesson in the offering.   Devon violently tore off the wrap, smashed open the carton and removed the TV shell weighed down with worthless ballast instead of tube and circuitry.  The TV remote turned out to be a pack of cigarettes.  Devon pushed everything to the ground.  Then he picked up the phony remote.  “Well at least I got a pack of cigarettes out of it.”

Devon would go on to star as Waldo Lydecker in a staging of Laura at the Hollywood United Methodist Church.  It was great acting, a critic pronounced him better than Clifton Webb.  Christopher Guest and Peter DeLuise were in the cast. The only down side the night we went was that Peter’s father Dom sat in front of us and  seemed to be doing a monologue for himself competing with the play.  The night of Laura’s final performance, after the last curtain call, Devon dropped dead back stage; he finally had that second heart attack.  It was like a cheesy Busby Berkeley plot only there was no need for an understudy to step in.  One odd note, days after Devon’s death the director of the play, Dick “East Of Eden” Davalos, called the office asking for Devon to go to lunch. He obviously knew of Devon’s demise but acted as though he hadn’t. Taken aback I told him Devon wasn’t in. Dick inquired about Devon the next day as well. I asked him if this was some sick joke. He said “Don’t worry about it.” and hung up.

Manson had a wonderful Christmas wingding each year at the Beverly Hills Hotel.   It was a fine arena for prattle and pratfalls.  A place for buyers, producers and talent to mingle in a festive moment.  Where Michael “Timerider” Nesmith would recall how Hendrix traumatized parents as the Monkees opening act and how his mother had invented Liquid Paper. Director Penelope Spherris debated the magnetic appeal of Albert Brooks vs Darby Crash.  A German distributor pulled a knife on a Scandinavian distributor. I tried to convince Mark and Marilyn Tensor to no avail that Crown should do a teen zombies flick. Richard Farnsworth acted out horse stunts making the ladies swoon. My future boss Andy Vajna declared First Blood would change the foreign marketplace forever. My future wife grabbed a violin from the string quartet and played hot gypsy improv. And Charlton Heston passed through quickly due to back problems. “Damn jai alai.”

Manson14

I quit Manson to go to Texas seeking lost romance and ended up spending time with a charming carnival freak show in Beaumont (Hall and Christ Sideshow I believe).  When I returned to L.A. Manson welcomed me back into their fold but it was a-changing.  Manson International eventually moved from Sunset to a “more prestigious” building on Olympic in West Los Angeles. The bigger digs were required for the larger Manson Family of twenty plus employees.  As part of its expansion Manson got hitched to production, financially floating Albert Pyum’s concrete boat Radioactive Dreams.  All production is high stakes gambling but some of us were concerned where Manson was placing its bets.  Employees jumped ship to more lucrative ventures. In 1985 Michael kicked me and two other “non-team players” out the door. It was the beginning of streamlining for eventual sale of the Manson library to Jonathan Krane’s MCEG in 1987.

I resurfaced at Carolco, a foreign distributor and producer which did not feed off the bottom, a company that transformed Hollywood financing for better or worse.  Carolco’s filing system was absolute chaos compared to Manson but for Carolco that may have been insurance.

Micro 1

The Micro Movie House: An Improbable History

Some movie theaters have become as legendary as the films which have illuminated their screens. These venues are famous for their influence or historical significance, or their longevity, or for the legends that have grown up around them.

This is not a story about one of those theaters.

The Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho, that’s right, Moscow, Idaho, was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, of all things, until 1975, when it was converted into an unlikely cinema, seemingly over the course of a single inspired, and from all surviving evidence, intoxicated weekend.

The theater was designed, if such a word is applicable, like a Rubik’s cube half-solved and then dropped drunkenly in superglue. Patrons entering under the tiny marquee and through the front door would immediately be confronted by a precarious wooden staircase leading down into who-knows-where. Those brave enough to risk descending these stairs into the dark would find themselves in a “lobby.”  A ticket for the night’s performance was purchased not at a box office, but at a portable podium-pulpit, apparently a repurposed remnant of the building’s earlier career. The narrow room beyond was adorned with vintage movie posters, an actual fireplace, and a suggestion box. None of which are likely to be found at a modern multiplex, I suspect.

The basement concession stand was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the Micro. In addition to popcorn and soft drinks (served in waxy cups, inexplicably adorned with the logo of a nearby taco chain), the place offered candy, fresh-baked cookies, self-serve coffee, and famously, apple cider. The cider was particularly memorable. It came in 3 sizes, and could be served with or without ice, filtered or unfiltered, and hot or cold. Conceivably, ordering the cider, what with all the inherent decisions involved in doing so, could have made an indecisive patron late for the start of the film.

That film was projected in an auditorium off the lobby and atop another twisted set of stairs. I’ve read that the Micro could accommodate 150 people. But I know for a fact that selling 125 tickets would fill up all of the seats (and yes, they were real theater seats. I wonder whatever happened to all those pews.), and the single bench at the back of the room as well.

That bench was under the projection booth, which had been constructed on a raised and walled-off platform where the church’s pulpit had once stood. The holy light which originated from the booth was the product not of God, but of 2 vintage, Simplex 35mm projectors. The first time I watched a movie under the light of those projectors it was the 1980s. I was a freshman in college and I was instantly smitten.

My parents had neither encouraged nor discouraged my budding and inexplicable interest in film. I’d went to Moscow, located in Idaho’s rural and usually frozen panhandle on a theater arts scholarship of all things, and this phd scholarships program which involves many years in deep research,  was one of the best things that happen to me it has made the person who I am today. As soon as I started frequenting the Micro I’m afraid that the world of the stage lost me forever to the world of the soundstage. The Micro, you see, ran a mix of conventional Hollywood pictures, in their second and third runs, and classics and contemporary cinema from around the world. I’d never seen or even heard of many of the exotic cinematic pleasures I encountered at the Micro. I may have gone to college at the University of Idaho, but I got my education, at least the one I still reference, at the Micro.

After a few weeks of seeing virtually everything the theater had to offer I decided that I had to become a part of this place. I gathered my courage and asked the manager for a job. Well, it wasn’t so courageous come to think about it. I actually dropped my phone number into the suggestion box with the offer to work for free to “learn the business.”  I was astonished when the manager, Bob Suto, actually called me and invited me in for an interview. He even, eventually, liked me enough to pay me. I’d always thought that the film industry was more difficult to get into than that.

Micro 1

For the next 4 years the Micro became a part of my life which I still haven’t quite shaken off.  And the story of the Micro, the idiosyncratic, independent, eccentric little Micro, personifies, to a certain degree an entire era made up of spunky repertoire theaters which ran whatever the hell they wanted. And actually found success, for a time, in doing so.

Conceivably these theaters grew out of the independent or “revival” houses which had no corporate affiliation during the studio era. In the late 1950’s the legendary Brattle theater, near Harvard, Mass, began inexplicably running old Humphrey Bogart pictures. And the largely college-age patrons who frequented this theater found themselves unexpectedly relating to films starring an actor who had been a hero to their parents’ generation. These same movies were then being widely syndicated to television, but the thrill of seeing them with an audience of equally appreciative, and often chemically enhanced, peers, created the first film “cults.”  Audiences went again and again to these films, often reciting the dialogue along with the actors on the screen. And other theater owners, especially those lucky enough to be close to a college campus, were quick to follow the Brattle’s example. Other Hollywood personalities, those which these audiences perceived as being somehow, counter-culture, like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, were quickly joined on-screen by films of foreign auteurs and by experimental and independent films from all over the world as well.

It didn’t last, of course. The original generation of revival theater audiences grew up, went to Woodstock or Viet Nam, and eventually decided they liked to watch their movies while sitting at home on the couch.  By the time I made my debut at the Micro home video was already a fact of life. Some of the patrons I sold tickets to could conceivably have been children of the audiences who cheered Jean-Paul Belmondo reverently whispering Bogie’s name in Breathless (À bout de soufflé,1960). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was there for the very end of a rather romantic era in film exhibition.

But Bob Suto must have known that he was piloting a ship which ultimately had to flounder. He didn’t give a damn. The Micro’s schedules were ballsy and eclectic and weird. It was like Bob was determined to bring the best and oddest of world cinema into the wilds of Idaho – whether or not Idaho was ready for them or not.

The theater was actually bankrolled and subsidized by Bob’s sister and her husband, who owned the local Taco John’s – thus solving forever the mystery of the Micros’ enigmatic drink cups. But the crazy thing was that, for a long time, the good people of Moscow, a medium-sized university town, largely populated by ex-hippies and agriculture majors, responded to being condescended to in large numbers and with open wallets. I used to get the schedules of what Bob had booked and have no idea how it was that a mainstream Hollywood offering like Trading Places (1983) could share the same screen, in the same week, with Bye Bye Brazil (1980) and Sophomore Sensations (the latter was a 1975 German-soft-core oddity so obscure that it took me five minutes to even find it on IMDB). One week Bob proudly told me that we were the smallest theater, in the smallest market in the United States, to project Abel Gance’s recently restored Napoleon (1927).  We sold out that weekend. But we still lost money on it.

Midnight movies were a big part of any revival theater’s existence. The Micro’s signature midnight movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was the king (queen?) of that particular income stream. Ordinarily, two employees could handle an entire shift at the Micro. One person would sell tickets and another would work concessions. At show time the ticket teller would carry the box-office podium back to the concession era and the person there would vend both tickets and popcorn while his partner ran upstairs to fire up the projectors. If a line formed downstairs, and anyone bought a movie ticket and the cider, the whole system could be jeopardized by the complexities of the situation.

On Rocky Horror nights however, a third employee was brought in. Part of this unlucky individual’s job was to climb onto the stage at 11:59 PM and warn the audience that throwing rice and toilet paper, and even other patrons into the air was fine and well, but that anyone caught squirting water at the screen would be roughed up by “management” and thrown outside.  This warning became de rigueur on Rocky Horror nights after our screen was repeatedly doused in water by enthusiastic audience members. We eventually replaced this screen because the damaged areas started to shine and glisten under the projector light.

Actually, we probably would have ignored the complaints this caused, had the screen not been further mauled by an impromptu belly-dancing demonstration by Bob’s girlfriend Leanne, who had accidently sliced a horizontal line in the thing while swinging a prop sword during her memorable (at least to me) gyrations. Even this indignity we tried to cover up with some glue. But the seam the sword wound left behind really was impossible to ignore. During a screening of Notorious (1946), for example, Cary Grant’s lips would occasionally line-up so perfectly with the repaired seam that the actor would end up looking like a debonair and highly reflective version of Mr. Sardonicus.

The projection booth at the Micro had a lock on the door, with good reason. The machines inside had been workhorses in the 1930’s. But by the 80’s, these black behemoths, which looked like a set of Mickey Mouse ears, cast in iron and turned on their sides, were,  like the projectionists who operated them, somewhat idiosyncratic. They illumined our new screen using carbon rods mounted inside a reflective drum. The carbons would hiss and pop and sputter, and it was a near constant job keeping them feeding into each other at the proper speed and reflective density. I sometimes wonder how many people alive today were trained, like I was, in the maintenance of such archaic exhibitor’s alchemy. I must have been one of the last.

There were also reel changeovers between projectors to be performed every 17 minutes or so. As far as I know, film labs still print tiny circles, lasting 4 frames each and spaced about 20 seconds apart at the end of each reel of film, even though almost every theater in the country has now converted to digital projection, and any venues which still project actual celluloid probably splice all the reels together onto platters. But old habits die hard. At the Micro we used these visual cues to time the transitions from one projector to another. When it worked right the transition was seamless. Occasionally, the marks would be missing, along with the last few feet of film on the reel, and we would scratch new circles into the print with a razor blade. I remember when I was hired Bob asked me if I had any experience as a projectionist. I told him I knew how the cue mark system worked; having picked up this information up from an episode of Colombo. Never let anyone tell you that obsessive television watching isn’t a valuable skill in securing employment. At least it was for me.

As I’ve explained, the Micro was a legitimate, 35mm equipped theatre. But some of the films Bob booked were only available for projection in 16mm. We had a Bell & Howell projector for this purpose, which had been modified with a Xenon bulb and extra-large distribution and take-up arms. The projection booth was built off of the floor, so the ceiling was inordinately low from inside. One night I was projecting Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 16mm. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, because it hadn’t happened before, and never happened again, but as the weight of the film shifted from the front spindle to the rear, the front reel shifted upward ever so slightly and started rubbing against the ceiling. Unable to move, the film locked in place and caught fire in the gate, colorfully incinerating Clark Gable mid-mutiny. I repaired the damage, but couldn’t keep distribution reel from continuing to bang into the ceiling. It probably happened a dozen times on that endless, unforgettable evening. As I’ve said. The booth had a lock on the door for a reason.

Any skills as a projectionist I managed to acquire, at least those which didn’t originate on the NBC Mystery Movie, came not from Bob, but rather from his chief projectionist – although we never used that phrase (we didn’t bother with titles at the socialist utopia which was the Micro). Darwin Vest was a mechanical genus who managed to keep the projectors running, more or less, in spite of any mistakes I inflicted upon them. He could listen to the machines grinding away and tell that the intermittent gear was just a little out of alignment. At least I think he could. I took his word for it.

Darwin was a maestro in the projection booth. But his heart was elsewhere. He was a scientist of some renown, but was hampered academically because he had no formal accreditation. His specialty was the venoms of poisonous spiders and reptiles. Darwin was famous in certain circles of academia for identifying the hobo spider as being a venomous species. During the first years we were working together he was busy assembling a show, “The Venomous Reptile Review,” with his sister Becky, who also worked at the Micro. The presentation was intended to educate audience members about biting, clawing, spitting or otherwise aggressive snakes and lizards through up-close and personal demonstrations. But, sadly, when the show opened at a lecture hall in nearby Pullman, Washington, only 12 people showed up, ultimately forcing Darwin and Becky to shutter the act and to escape anxious creditors by hiding out in the projection booth.

Darwin was a fascinating guy in a doomed, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way. A quiet, soft spoken intellectual with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of always being three-steps ahead of everyone else, but of being too polite to let on. He once invited me out for drinks after, or maybe it was before, a shared shift at the Micro. All I wanted to speak about was movies. Usually he was fine with this, but on this night he seemed to want to talk to me about some mysterious, impenetrable research he was engaged in on campus. I was still obsessing about the Herzog film our projectors had been mauling that week, but to be polite I finally asked him what exactly it was he had been doing behind locked doors in the chemistry building every day. He took a drink, and then looked around, as if spies might be lurking begin the potted ferns. “Cancer,” He finally whispered.

“You’ve…got it?”

“I’ve cured it.”

He then told me exactly what it was he had been working on, something venom-related, surely, which had somehow led to his mysterious, kitchen-sink cancer cure. But I could follow what he told me no more than I could repeat any of it today. All I can recall is that he said that in every test he had performed the cancer cells had retreated. “It needs a lot more work; years of work, maybe” he whispered, “but someday…”

The next day, post hangover, it occurred to me that I had recently wallowed in the delicious tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (1982) at the Micro. And that there was a scene where Kevin Kline’s romantic, schizophrenic scientist character had engaged in a similar conversation with a protégée. The realist in my nature, even today, assumes that Darwin was repeating this scene with me, either ironically, or drunkenly, just to screw with me and to see if I would notice its origin. Yet Darwin wasn’t that sort of person. He was too kind, and too self-absorbed for this sort of referential trickery. Unfortunately “someday” never came for him either. In 1999, Darwin was taking a walk at night, as was his habit, and he vanished into the dark without a trace. The case is still open. It’s still officially listed by the F.B.I as unsolved.

My years at the Micro came to an end with my graduation, although I had spent more time either changing reels or watching them play out there than I ever had in school. Home video had been eroding the Micro’s audiences since before I arrived, but the opening of a nearby multiplex, and changing audience tastes caused attendance to continue to drop off after I was gone. Apparently, although none of us knew it, the Micro had actually had been existing inside a Camelot-like bubble – where it was still 1969 – for a decade. That bubble finally burst in 1998. It had been a long run. A quarter century lifetime for a theater so haphazardly constructed, indifferently managed, and scheduled so contrary to popular taste is a long time. Perhaps passion and a gambler’s spirit is a better business tool than one would suspect. Bob Suto and the Micro had a lot of both.

The last movie to run at the Micro Movie House was a free screening of the much-beloved-by- Moscowite’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve not been back to see it for myself, but friends tell me that the building which housed the Seventh-Day Adventists and then the Micro is now a tattoo parlor.

There are still a few revival theaters left in the large cities. Many theater chains now dedicate a token number of screens to independent film as well. But this once-upon-a-time willingness by audiences, even audiences in allegedly conservative places like rural Idaho, to support eclectic, eccentric film programing, is apparently a thing of the past. No one can be certain, of course, but it now seems likely that the lights have forever dimmed on theaters like the Micro. Just as it now seems likely that, like my friend Darwin, who walked off into the night with a secret and never returned, we’ll not see their like again.


Steven Bingen is a historian, screenwriter and former archivist at Warner Bros. Originally a native of Seattle, Washington, Bingen has written or contributed  to dozens of books, articles and documentaries on Hollywood history, Including MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which he coauthored, and which was the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. A follow-up is due in September; 2014. He lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles, California.

http://mgmbacklot.info/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/MGM-Hollywoods-Greatest-Backlot/150257071698660

 

State of Siege

“Best Print Available” Days at the AFI National Film Theater

People noticed the car parts first.  Body parts from a ’73 Chevy Impala, painted a flat blue, seemed to float against the left-side wall of the American Film Institute National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  The answer? – acoustics, the walls being sound-eating, unpainted cinder block.

But then the whole theater was an afterthought. The Kennedy Center had already been open for a year, and it was only after that opening that someone actually noticed no provision had been made for film in what was after all, a Center for the Performing Arts.  The nether regions of the backstage of the Eisenhower, the ‘legitimate’ stage at the KC complex, were cut off laterally and the AFI Theater opened on April 3, 1973 with D.W.Griffith’s1919 silent  Broken Blossoms – and under a cloud of controversy over censorship.

Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (État de Siège, 1972) had been pulled from the opening week because it was about political assassination a decade after Kennedy’s own assassination – gee, why didn’t anybody think of that in the first place? – and a number of filmmakers pulled their films in protest.

State of Siege

And so nobody seemed to notice the then-cutting edge – and probably unique to this day – design of the venue in the first place. The seats and projection booth rested on a raised island within the rectangular space, with a small stage before the screen on its own island, and a powerful theater organ in between.  The 224 seats, rather sharply raked via steps from the first four rows back, were stadium seating before the term had been invented, rising from about 4-5 feet above the floor at the front to between 20 to 30 feet at the back, and conformed to the rectangle shape of the space.  Entry was via very abrupt stairs under a balcony at the back and very short ones at the corner of the front. Thus, a very short throw (only 68 feet from screen to projector), no fan shape, no bad seats, no bad sight lines (hardened buffs avoided rows 2-4 because, unraked, there could be head problems with subtitles.)

Not that I was noticing these fine points during my first viewing there when I was part of an SRO opening week crowd for Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon – one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life.  Just the film itself would be enough, of course, but with three projectors in the booth, the transition to Cinemascope was both breathtaking and perfectly smooth (not always the case subsequently) with the curtains parting from the original academy shape to the triple screen right on cue.  And throughout the finale, the organ thundered variations on ‘La Marseillaise’, with the base notes of the simulated small arms and cannon fire vibrating up through the island to the soles of your feet.

Where do you go from there?  Easy, I lived there, and so did a lot of other people, in a time before cassettes; DVDs; screenings at the National Gallery or the Freer; a Late, Late Show or a Late, Late Show Part II (DC closed down early in those days).  Such now-chestnuts as Singin’ in the Rain would attract turn away crowds, and after a while, you started to recognize people.  The beginning of ‘The Gang’ began when a tall, slender, balding man with whom I contended for Row 5, Seat 7 nearly every night (late comer got Seat 8) introduced himself, adding, to this then-unemployed film bum’s stupefaction, that he was employed … in a serious job (as legislative staffer for Senator William Proxmire he came up with the name for the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’) … happily married … and had kids!  (I’m still not sure how he did it.)  After a while a 10- to 12-member “ Fifth Row Society” emerged, and when you arrived at “the Clubhouse” you routinely asked the ticket-taker “Who’s here tonight?” A disparate group, it ranged from the Congressional staffer, to a still-in-uniform undergrad, to a construction worker, to a phone sales rep, to a nuclear site troubleshooter, to a Peruvian cultural attaché, to several just unemployed. For the first couple of years screenings were always at 6:30 and 9:00, and with a short first film there was plenty of time in between for vehement discussion — and afterwards as well. One night the recapping went on so long we were kicked out of the KC and ended up in the lobby of the Howard Johnson’s opposite the Watergate.

Not that everything was perfect. These were the bad old days of the “best print available,” and with the Kennedy Center being the most prestigious venue in town and so attracting the most senior – and thus oldest and crustiest projectionists – shouts of “Focus!” were not unusual. On one occasion, focus maintenance was so dreadful for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon, 1929) that I, as Regular Patron, stalked off to the booth and exchanged views with the projectionist, so vehemently apparent that distraught ushers thought I was going to punch out the 70-year-old (I thought I was holding back.) Later a midnight screening of Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General with Vincent Price proceeded with the reels in this order: 1, 4, 3, 2, 5 – making for a unique, Memento-like viewing experience. The projectionist manfully apologized sheepishly as we shuffled out.

In such an intimate venue, and with everyone knowing each other, there was the occasional audience participation. As the bathos mounted in John Cromwell’s 1939 Made for Each Other, and James Stewart paused as he ran in with the child-saving serum, the cry rang out, “It’s dead!”  During a house-lights-up equipment breakdown at the two-hour mark of Ivan Perestiani’s interminable Three Lives (Sami sitsotskhle, 1924), somebody suggested “Let’s make a break for it.” And as Fred C. Brannon’s immortal 12-part 1952 serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (Leonard Nimoy billed ninth) unreeled with credits for each episode still intact, I amused myself by trying to memorize the entire cast list, making it by the finale as the sparse crowd egged me on.

And then there was the nitrate fire. It was 1979 and things were just getting a little bit more complicated in the final reel or two of Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) when the screen suddenly went dark. I immediately looked over my shoulder and saw flames shooting up behind the windows to the booth. Presumably right after that the chords holding up the metal shutters for the windows incinerated and they closed down but I wasn’t still looking. Since the fumes are toxic, the ushers rolled back the immense, floor-to-ceiling side doors (originally used for moving in scenery) and rushed us out to the patio. As we milled about, waiting to see what would happen next, a young couple approached my pal and me, who had obviously seen the film before (we had come to see the nitrate print), and asked us to tell them how the film ended. Summarize the last act of Lady from Shanghai!? Well, we started to disagree right away and as the argument got noisy, the couple started to nervously edge away from two obvious nut jobs, although we did manage to gasp out – spoiler alert! – “they finally shoot it out in the fun house.”  A month later the AFI brought back a safety print and my buddy and I realized we both had been wrong.

Well, it’s always easier to remember the misadventures. Over the years the question wasn’t whether I had seen a thousand films in the AFI; it was whether I had see two thousand. How many memorable and unique viewing experiences; but then, when after twenty years of patronage I was asked to become the programmer of the theater (the guy who picks and schedules all the films, writes the notes for the printed calendars, hosts all the guests, and can hurtle into the booth and order the sound level for The Guns of Navarone to be maxed – yes, it’s a dream job) I learned two things about the theater for the first time.

For years I had realized it was the best venue in town for viewing widescreen. Now I could try and figure out why. Now I could stand on the stage and tell the projectionist to pull the masking to ‘scope’ and as I looked back at the house I realized I was looking at … the side aisles.  The screen was wider than the seats! All the seats, since the AFI was strictly rectangular. I realized I couldn’t think of another theater like that – since 99% of all theaters are fan-shaped, no matter how big the screen is, it’s never wider than the audience.  And what’s important is not the absolute size of the screen; it’s the size in relation to the audience. Of course, sitting at the back of the house – which because of the steep rake was still not that far from the screen – instead of my fifth row, the screen would appear smaller, but it would still have that subtle psychological effect. Subtle, because I had never realized it in twenty years of viewing. I have no clue as to whose idea it was but I’ve never seen it done anywhere else.

And now, as the on-stage host, the one who has to get on stage as the credits are ending and before the lights go up and keep the audience from leaving so he can say, “And now here’s the director/star/writer/etc. of tonight’s film,” I realized that the theater was perfectly designed for that as well. In other venues the host and guest may have to enter: down the aisles in full view of the audience; from the back of the stage where you can’t see the film ending on the screen; or from wings which should never be in a film theater anyway. But at the AFI, where, since the island was not flush with the walls there was a wood-topped wall on the outside of the side aisles that was about head-high at the lower end, guest and host could lurk two steps from the stage completely out of the audience’s sight lines and be on stage in time to catch viewers before they could reach for their coats. Well that’s getting in to host anecdotes and not about the theater itself.

That the Kennedy Center, with its high arts tone, always regarded the film theater as a stepchild/orphan and clearly implied that they’d love it to be anywhere else is probably not surprising. (In 2001, the then-incoming head of the KC Michael Kaiser stated in print, “I simply do not enjoy movies.”)  But the American Film Institute generally regarded it that way too, certainly after its headquarters moved from Washington to Los Angeles. But then there had always been an anomaly: as a visiting Uruguayan director said to me, “You mean this is the only AFI theater? I thought there were lots of little ones all across the country.” Sounds like that would have been a good idea.

Of course, as we learned, there are things worse than being ignored and neglected. In March 1998, the director of the AFI, Jean Firstenberg, while still in negotiations with Montgomery County, Maryland to restore/reopen the Silver Theater in suburban Silver Spring, announced the closing of the theater, stating, “With video, pay per view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis.”  In the wake of the resulting furor, the theater stayed open, but on a part-time basis, sharing with the Kennedy Center, and, with the stage extended, with a local theater group, sometimes out for a month, other times sneaking in three weeks of screening out of four.

And yet, despite the irregular programming, the last few years showed good-to-great box office, always with the yearly Latin American and European Union festivals; and in the last year a gigantic smash hit with a Kurosawa/Mifune festival, and an almost completely sold-out extended run of Russian Ark, probably the all-time house record.

Russian Ark

But with the long-delayed opening of the triplex Silver Theater in 2003, the handwriting was on the wall; all the emphasis, all the publicity, etc., shifted to the new kid. And when the Kennedy Center made its move the next year the AFI said, Oh, Ok, it’s their building – they just didn’t care.

The end came without announcement and without publicity on Halloween night in 2004. The last show was just a regular screening in that year’s European Union Film Showcase, Pupi Avati’s 2004 Christmas Rematch (La rivincita di Natale), and the audience only found out it was the finale when I announced it at the start of the show. I brought bottles of champagne myself – well, it was on sale – and our usher, Jackie, and two distinguished local film programming colleagues helped me pass it out.

I still think it was the best viewing venue for film I’ve seen – and I thought that before I was employed there.

And now it’s a children’s theater but this movie seat cover absolutely does the difference when taking about comfort.

 

Michael Jeck is adjunct professor of film history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and writer of the text for the quarterly programs of Film Forum 2, New York since 1988. And he has been: an independent film distributor; programmer of the American Film Institute Theater; on-air host of international movies at Mhz-TV; and audio commentator on the DVDs and Blu-rays of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.

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Quo Vadis 2

Movie-Watching Memories: The Quo Vadis

A new, semi-regular column here at World Cinema Paradise, “Movie-Watching Memories” will feature short articles by our columnists sharing memories of their hard-top movie theaters, drive-ins, home video experiences, special screenings and other movie-viewing experiences.

 

The Quo Vadis                                                                     by Stuart Galbraith IV

Westland, Michigan, USA

(1966-2002)

There were surely better places to see a movie, but none was as bizarrely fascinating as the Quo Vadis Theater, located at 7420 Wayne Road near Warren Road in the suburban Detroit working class City of Westland.

The theater was built by the Wayne Amusement Co. theater chain and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the famous architect best known for the ill-fated World Trade Center. The over-emphatically glitzy, modern, and vaguely Romanistic Quo, at its peak, was a labyrinthine wonder. Decked out in aqua blue and gold title, the 1,200-seat ground-floor auditorium, twinned in 1970, opened with the Doris Day comedy The Glass-Bottom Boat. The lobby was decorated with framed, all-star color portraits from various MGM anniversary events, as well as numerous seven-feet-tall Oscar statuettes. I always wondered if perhaps they were salvaged from some Hollywood junkyard following an Academy Awards show broadcast.

Quo Vadis 1

Quo Vadis 2

But that was just a taste of things to come. An upper floor, opened in 1968, was planned as a spacious, fancy restaurant, but instead two small theaters, the Penthouse I & II, debuted there in its place. These theaters were highly unusual because instead of the usual house lights during the daytime an automated curtain would slide open to the left or right of the theater-goer, letting harsh sunlight pour in and revealing a floor-to-ceiling glass window providing them a view of busy Wayne Road and the then-new Westland Mall beyond.

The restaurant concept wasn’t entirely abandoned, ether. A small but fully-stocked and perpetually bustling bar greeted patrons at the top of the stairs, and around the corner was the smaller but still-impressive “Over 21 Club,” a Playboy Mansion-styled hangout, where nighttime patrons could don headphones and watch movies playing at the adjacent Algiers Drive-In, also operated by Wayne Amusements. Sadly, a proposed third-floor rooftop beer garden theater, seating 1,000 people, was never realized.

I have both fond and sad memories of the Quo Vadis. They were pretty lax about enforcing the Under 17 Not Admitted without a Parent or Guardian rule applying to R-rated films, nor were they very diligent about making sure these same teenagers didn’t buy one ticket and freely move from one screen to another. I did this numerous times myself only to get pinched once, I think it was during the middle of Caddyshack. Fortunately I had the foresight to grab off the sticky floor a batch of ticket stubs left by paying customers. The angry usher went back to the box-office for a few minutes after I randomly produced one of these, and when he returned instead of giving me and my pal the old heave-ho instead apologized profusely for disturbing us. I still feel a bit guilty about that.

I more than made up for that bit of larceny buying actual tickets to many movies there. I recall a particularly memorable afternoon watching Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, a film that so impressed me that I went back to see it again that evening.

Sadly, the Quo Vadis holds one other memory I feel duty-bound to report. When I was a 9th grade junior high school student, I had a teacher that, quite unlike my parents, nurtured my growing interest in film. A movie fan himself, Fred Ochs opened the minds of his students by frequently showing short films on the 16mm Bell & Howell projectors used in those days. It was in his class that I first experienced the short films of animator-filmmaker Norman McLaren and other movies from the National Film Board of Canada. It’s where I first saw title designer Saul Bass’s Academy Award-winning short Why Man Creates and the early efforts of Claymation pioneer Will Vinton. Ochs encouraged my own, furtive attempts at filmmaking, then in Super-8 format, one of which became an end-of-semester project. I finished editing movie later than expected, but he graciously allowed me to bring it in a week or so after the semester had ended and gave me full credit for my labors.

Then, over the summer he and his wife decided to take in a movie at the Quo Vadis, only to be struck and killed by a car on busy Wayne Road as they attempted to cross the street. They left behind, I think, three children.

Over time, the Quo’s screens were sub-divided and sub-divided again. Eventually the smallest one, built in place of the by-this-point-closed Over 21 Club, wasn’t much bigger than my home theater is now. The last movie I saw there was Mel Brooks’s Life Stinks (on assignment from The Ann Arbor News), two years before I moved to Los Angeles, and that pretty much describes how I felt when the Quo Vadis shuttered for good in January 2002. It sat empty for years before finally being torn down in 2002, and when I Google Mapped it for this article, I was depressed to find a vacuous, vacant lot in its place. Quo Vadis?

 

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